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Lowering tax cap is just first step for the county

March 30, 2006

With the legislative equivalent of a gun to their heads, the Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday lowered the tax cap on property assessments from 10 percent to 5 percent.

Now the commissioners need to take a serious look at how to keep tax bills affordable for citizens, especially those long-time residents whose salaries haven't risen as quickly as property values.

The first step should be to publicize the relief that is already available. For example, the Homeowners' Property Tax Credit Program "sets a limit on the amount of property taxes any homeowner must pay based upon his or her income," according to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.

In January, MDAT officials said that a property owner whose annual income is $16,000 would pay no more than $480 a year in property taxes.

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There is also a program for renters, based on the idea that although they don't own the property, their rent is based in part on the property taxes that the landlord pays.

After that, the commissioners need to look at what they can do to ease the tax burden for those who don't meet income guidelines, but have property that has soared in value.

As a condition of getting legislation passed, the county's General Assembly delegation asked the commissioners to explore the effect of rising assessments on citizens, but as Commissioner William Wivell admitted, they didn't do much.

The commissioners now have to look at how they can balance the need to build new schools and roads for an expanding population with the need to hold taxes in check for those whose current incomes probably wouldn't qualify them to buy their own homes.

The commissioners should do this, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because the county board failed to anticipate those problems.

With neighboring counties struggling with growth and adding fees and other restrictions, someone on the county staff should have figured out that it was only a matter of time before the developers came over South Mountain.

As housing prices began to rise in those same counties, local officials should have realized that if they didn't build affordable housing requirements into local ordinances, developers would build the most expensive houses that they could sell.

Did a lot of people fail to see this coming? No doubt about it. But county government has a staff with at least six professional planners. If one of them hasn't been assigned to look at trends that might adversely affect county residents, that should happen immediately.

Then planners and county finance officials should come up with a plan to balance the county's needs with current residents' ability to pay.

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